Is network innovation dead?

Is there any innovation in the network marketplace any more? There's a thundering silence as compared with a few short years ago when every time you turned around there was a new protocol, a new product addressing unmet business needs, and a new forum to promote these new products.

Today, only three areas - VoIP, security and wireless - constantly generate news, and the rate of change in these areas has slowed over the past few years. Instead, we're seeing more emphasis on streamlining and economizing existing processes rather than inventing new ones. Have networks evolved to the point that there's nothing new to be done, so all that's left is to deliver services at the lowest possible cost? Innovation is alive and well, but it also depends on how you define innovation. Innovation goes far beyond invention; it includes taking existing technologies, concepts and products, and combining them in a unique fashion.

Similarly, innovation can be used to solve a problem that innovation causes. Take wireless LANs (WLAN). The innovative 802.11 products from a few years ago work great as long as the footprints don't overlap. But they work so great that they also cause a problem - how to provide complete coverage over an entire campus while controlling access, providing roaming capabilities and avoiding interference. Networking providers have solved this with innovative approaches to fully meshing WLAN coverage.

One could even argue that this re-purposed innovation is superior in many ways to invention. Invention generally takes a wholesale swap-out and generates technology wars. We don't need to return to the early 1990s with transport protocol battles between frame relay, ATM and Switched Multimegabit Data Service. It's preferable in today's economy for companies to have better ways to do core processes using an existing or almost-existing infrastructure.

Economics and innovation must work hand-in-hand. While innovation is usually viewed as good, it will only be meaningful today if it also has a strong business case to support it. Having a good business case can even change "bad" innovation to "good" innovation.

The bottom line, then, is that innovation is alive and well, albeit in some less-radical forms than in years past. But for this innovation to be taken seriously in today's environment there's an even stronger imperative that the innovation also has a strong business value.

Steve Taylor is president of Distributed Networking Associates and editor/publisher of

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